The Red and the Black begins by describing a small French village made prosperous because of a nail factory. Some of the themes of the novel are apparent in the description of the town. There is an “air of self-satisfaction…an impression of narrow-mindedness and lack of imagination” (18).
Next we meet Monsieur Renal, who typifies this description. He is the mayor of the town and owner of the nail factory. He’s obsessed with buying land in the town and putting up stone walls on his property to earn the respect of his neighbors. My opinion is that Stendhal’s purpose here is to bring up socialization as a theme. Everybody in this society is supposed to have a designated place and the “walls” symbolize the rigidness and lack of mobility and self-determination. Socialization is an important theme in mostbildungsromans but the theme here seems to be that socialization is being privileged over self-determination.
Monsieur Renal buys a piece of land from “old” Sorel, presumably a relative of Julien Sorel, the eventual protagonist of The Red and the Black. Next Stendhal equates public opinion with despotism. The inhabitants of the village must not be too original in the way they build their walls, or they will not be respected by their neighbors. In other words, the overly strong socialization impulse amounts to tyranny…Note in this more classical view, it is not just the state or ruler that can impose tyranny, but rather society itself can inflict despotism and limit self-determination.
Stendhal. The Red and the Black. Trans. by Lowell Blair. New York: Bantam Books, 1959.